LIFE

A no to dirty dancing

An ex-stripper leads a campaign to ban ‘lap dancing’ in Ontario’s nightclubs

JOE CHIDLEY July 17 1995
LIFE

A no to dirty dancing

An ex-stripper leads a campaign to ban ‘lap dancing’ in Ontario’s nightclubs

JOE CHIDLEY July 17 1995

A no to dirty dancing

LIFE

An ex-stripper leads a campaign to ban ‘lap dancing’ in Ontario’s nightclubs

It is a Tuesday night—the Fourth of July—and the Brass Rail tavern on downtown Toronto’s Yonge Street is crowded with off-duty businessmen, sunburned drifters, college students and Americans enjoying the holiday north of the border. As the men lounge in the bar’s art-deco chairs, a lanky brunette dressed as a schoolgirl dances onstage, removing her plaid skirt and thighhigh white stockings to the grinding guitars of U2. About 30 other women—wearing every permutation of fantasy clothing, from bikinis to fishnet bodysuits to merry-widow lingerie—work the floor. The dancers approach the men crowded around the tables, bat their eyes or swivel their hips. And then they ask: “Wanna dance?” It is a question as old as 10-cents-a-dance halls and highschool proms. But behind the frat-party atmosphere, the lights and the sexy get-ups —traditional staples of the strip-club scene— a lot has changed in Ontario.

Now, if the customer says yes to the dancer’s come-on, she will typically lead him to a booth and stage a private performance. For $10, she will gyrate completely nude and rub herself against his crotch; for $20, she will let him touch her while she moves around on him. The service has come to be known as “lap dancing,” and many of its customers achieve orgasm. In some of the shadier bars, the dancers also take part in oral sex and even full intercourse. Since a landmark ruling last year by Ontario Court

Judge Gordon Hachbom, touching between customers and exotic dancers, traditionally taboo in the province’s strip bars, is no longer a criminal act. And with bar owners responding swiftly to a new revenue opportunity, staid old Ontario has gained the dubious distinction of becoming the lap-dancing capital of North America.

According to police, community workers and the dancers themselves, the lap-dancing

boom has opened the door for prostitution, sexual assault and the transmission of disease. Exotic dancers, they say, are no longer selling mere fantasy—they are being forced to sell their flesh. But there is little that law enforcement authorities can do about it, thanks largely to Hachborns February, 1994, decision. The judge dismissed charges of staging an indecent theatrical performance against Cheaters Tavern, then one of only a handful of Toronto bars offering lap dancing. He ruled that a wide range of body contact—from

touching breasts to oral sex— did not violate community standards, and therefore was not obscene. In the 17 months since, the full-contact lap dance has completely replaced its tamer predecessor, no-contact “table dancing”—a look-only performance at a client’s table rather than on a stage.

The change was not a welcome one for Katherine Goldberg, a former exotic dancer who is fighting a one-woman campaign to ban lap dancing. Now 31, Goldberg began stripping seven years ago after the breakup of her first marriage. With two children to look after and bills piling up, she entered the business out of desperation. She soon found herself enjoying the costumes and the glamor, she says, and she even formed lasting friendships with some of her customers. The money was good: a popular table dancer could easily make $200 a night or more.

For the past four years, Goldberg worked in the sprawling basement lounge of Filmores Hotel, in downtown Toronto. But things changed quickly after the Hachborn decision. The club built booths, she says, “and they said, well, there’s lap dancing now.” The management brought in so-called “dirty dancers” to train the strippers in the art of lap dancing. Gradually, the signs forbidding touching between dancers and customers came down. And although the managers told the dancers that lap dancing was voluntary, Goldberg says that it soon became the only way to make any money.

The clientele at the bar changed—less gentlemanly, more demanding. “I was only making $20 or $30 a night because I refused to do more than a dance,” Goldberg says. “They wanted me to do sexual stuff, and most of the time they didn’t even ask.” To Goldberg, who had remarried, that was sexual assault—and it began to take a psychological toll. “I would be angry with my kids, angry with my husband before I went in to work,” she says. “And when I got home and took a shower, it didn’t even help. I felt dirty.” Goldberg says she worried that lap dancing was exposing her to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and that the conditions were generally unsanitary. “Some of the dancers were having sex, so there would be used condoms on the couches,” she said. Goldberg began talking to other dancers about her concerns and posting anti-lap-dancing leaflets in the change rooms. In May, she told her story to local newspapers. On May 23, the day after her photo appeared in The Toronto Star, the club told her not to bother coming in again. “They told me, ‘We don’t want you here because this is a lap-dancing club,’ ” Goldberg recalls. “That’s when I decided that I had to go out and do more.”

Out of work and angry, Goldberg founded the Association for Burlesque Entertainers to pressure provincial and municipal authorities to ban lap dancing. The association claims the support of about 100 dancers—most of whom, she says, want to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs. ‘We want it back the way it was, with no touching,” Goldberg says. “And we want the club owners to be responsible if there’s a girl that’s sexually assaulted.” With the help of her husband, Michael, a music instructor, Goldberg has been circulating an anti-lap-dancing petition—and says that so far she has gathered 2,000 signatures from patrons, dancers and community activists. In late May, she staged a protest march at the provincial legislature that attracted about 30 supporters and secured an election promise from then-Tory candidate—now Ontario Premier—Mike Harris that he would ban lap dancing.

Although Harris has yet to honor that vow, there are signs that official Ontario is listening to Goldberg. Among other initiatives, the Metropolitan Licensing Commission, which registers more than 2,500 exotic dancers and 41 clubs, is now working on bylaws to regulate exotic dancing. “What in essence it comes down to,” says commission general manager Carol Ruddel-Foster, “is that physical contact should be prohibited.” One Ontario municipality—Richmond Hill, north of Toronto— has taken a more straightforward approach. Last April, police charged the owners of Fantasia strip club with operating a common bawdy house. Still, the future of lap dancing in Ontario largely depends on a Crown appeal of the Cheaters case that started the whole controversy. The case is scheduled to reach court in September.

In the meantime, and given the conditions that they must endure, why do more dancers not simply quit? The answer seems to be simple—the money. Before lap dancing, most clubs paid performers $200 to $300 a week on contract, plus a share of table-dancing proceeds. Now, however, dancers typically have to pay the club owners to work—and keep whatever they can earn from lap dances beyond that. The further they let the customers go, the more money they make. As well, many dancers have little formal education— Goldberg herself never finished high school. And they are facing increasing competition from newcomers from developing countries or Eastern Europe who tend not to complain about their working conditions. At one downtown Toronto club, Goldberg says, newly arrived Thai women are working for just $1 a dance—the other $9 goes straight to the club-owners. At another strip joint, a dancer from Bulgaria beams when she talks about Canada. “At least here,” she says, “I don’t have to line up for bread.”

JOE CHIDLEY